Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Photo by Russell Potter © 2008
One hundred and thirty-eight years ago today, in her home in the town of Groton, Connecticut, Tookoolito ("Hannah"), one of the greatest of Inuit guides and translators, died at the sadly young age of thirty-eight years. She was predeceased by her infant sons Tarralikitaq ("butterfly") and "King William," as well as her adopted daughter Panik (known affectionately as "Punny"). Her husband, "Joe" Ebierbing's name is also on this stone -- but, borrowing Tennyson's line on Franklin's cenotaph, Joe is "not here" -- he died some years later in the Arctic under mysterious circumstances, having returned there as a guide for the American explorer Frederick Schwatka.

Hers was an adventurous life. In 1853, she and "Joe" and a unrelated young boy, Akulukjuk, were brought to England by a whaling captain by the name of Bowlby, where they were exhibited at several locations, and even brought to Windsor Castle, where they took tea with Queen Victoria. Tookoolito's talent for languages enabled her to learn English with a remarkable degree of fluency; what she had picked up in England she developed further through converse with the whalers. Ebierbing, the quieter of the two, could get along tolerably in English, but distinguished himself more as a guide and hunter.  Hall was introduced to them aboard ship; while he was quite taken by them both, it was Tookoolito who made the strongest impression; as Hall noted in his journal, “I could not help admiring the exceeding gracefulness and modesty of her demeanor. Simple and gentle in her way, there was a degree of calm intellectual power about her that more and more astonished me.”

Tookoolito and Ebierbing endured much with Hall, accompanying him on his extensive Arctic searches for traces of Franklin's men, and appearing with him in at his lectures in the United States, as well as at Barnum's American Museum and Boston's Aquarial Gardens, where they were exhibited as curiosities; the death of their first child may have been in part a result of these frequent public appearances. On the Polaris Expedition, they faced an even sterner test, as Hall was poisoned by one of the ship's scientific staff, and in their escape they ended up among the group stranded on the ice floe for six months before their rescue. At the inquest that followed, Tookoolito and Ebierbing both defended Hall and supported his belief that he had been poisoned, but no action was taken.

They had been through a great deal together, and Ebierbing was with her on the night of December 31st; she was laid to rest in the Starr Burying Ground, where this marker may still be seen.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Talbotype of Irving's Brother

University of Glasgow, Special Collections
Last week, I blogged about the Talbotype of Lieutenant John Irving, which surfaced in the collections of the City of Edinburgh, and which I tentatively identified as the work of Hill and Adamson. It occurred to me that John's brother, the Reverend Lewis Irving, might be the link between them, since Hill had photographed all of principal figures who broke off to form the Free Church of Scotland in the 'Great Disruption,' among which Lewis Irving was prominent. Frustratingly, the good Reverend's name came up blank in all of the indexes of major collections of Hill and Adamson's work.

Fortunately, I then stumbled upon an M.Phil. thesis by one Roderick Duff Simpson. Simpson had gone through the large collection of copies on glass plates left behind at Hill and Adamson's studios in Rock House in Edinburgh, which are now in the collection of the University of Glasgow. Mr. Simpson identified one of these plates -- HA0291 -- as a portrait of the Reverend Irving, one which in the University's database is still listed as "unknown man." Despite his baldness, the resemblance is a striking one, with a similar aquiline nose and puffy lower eyelids. The photograph was taken by Hill as a study for his great painting of the Disruption, which features the heads of hundreds of men then present. According to Simpson, though, this particular photo was not the source used in the painting, which suggests that there are other images of Lewis Irving yet to be found.

I'm in the process of trying to contact Mr. Simpson, but in the meantime am happy to share this image, courtesy of the University of Glasgow, Special Collections.

Friday, December 19, 2014

New Photograph of Lieutenant Irving

Image courtesy City of Edinburgh Council – Libraries
Thanks to a posting by Stuart Tedham over on the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook page, we now can look upon a never-before-noticed photographic image of Lieutenant John Irving. Because the family name was sometimes spelt "Irvine," and the photo was catalogued under that name, it had been missed by generations of Franklin scholars. It's appropriate, indeed, that Mr. Tedham -- who hails from Dumfries and Galloway -- rediscovered this Scottish photograph in the electronic archives of the city of Edinburgh.

The photograph is a Talbotype -- or more properly, a salted-paper positive print made from a Talbotype paper negative. Developed by William Henry Fox Talbot, this process postdated that of Daguerre, but had the advantage of not conflicting with Daguerre's patents (contrary to Daguerre's claim of having donated his invention to France and the world in exchange for a pension, he enforced his patent in Britain and the United States). Thus, while in all of England only Antoine Claudet and Richard Beard were licensed to take photographs, in Scotland, a number of photographers took up Talbot's process with his informal knowledge and consent.  Among the pioneers there was Dr. John Adamson, whom we know took at least one photograph of Harry Goodsir, and his brother Robert Adamson, who with David Ocatvius Hill formed the firm of Hill and Adamson.

The Talbotype process had one further advantage -- unlike Daguerre's, which produced a single opaque image (the metal plate from the camera itself), Talbotypes were negatives on paper, which could produce one -- or more than one -- positive print. Sensitized paper was placed atop the negative, and the resulting contact print or prints were positives. The image of Irving is one of these, and shows a high degree of skill and professionalism; Irving is posed in from of some buildings (or possibly a backdrop), but the depth of field is such that he is in sharp focus, with the background blurred. He is wearing civilian dress, with broad sideburns (a popular style choice on the Franklin Expedition, being also favored by Goodsir, Gore, and Fairholme). There is, according to the curators, no further information about the image in their files, but it's reasonable to assume that Irving had his portrait made not long prior to departing for London and thence to the Arctic. There's also good reason to attribute the image to Hill and Adamson; the style is quite like theirs, and few other photographers active at this time would have been able to make such a fine portrait.

It's remarkable to note that Franklin's expedition may not have been the first to be photographed, nor the first to have taken photographic apparatus to the Frozen Regions -- Talbot himself corresponded briefly with one of the officers of James Clark Ross's Antarctic expedition, who sought training and supplies to try his process there -- alas, we don't know whether these plans were ever followed through.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Tale of a Spoon (Part 3)

"Eothen" Log (courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum)
When last I wrote, I'd held out hope that the log book of the whaleship "Eothen," which Thomas Barry swore would vindicate him, would -- or would not -- do so. Alas, it does neither, although it does give us some wonderful insights into the daily routine of life aboard such ships.

The vast majority of the notations in the log focus on the weather, the sighting of other ships, and other routine matters. Thomas Barry did not write the log himself, but delegated the task to one Frederick Merrill, a thorough man but somewhat challenged when it came to spelling (he spells his own name "Merel"). He rarely gives details of any shipboard doings, though at a couple of points he finds them worthy of note. On 28 July he writes that "Tonight the first Esquimaux came aboard: men, women, and girls. They gave us whale bones and deer, seal, and bear skins." When it came to the vessel's task in bringing Schwatka and his men north, there is a similarly brief note: "Franklynn [sic] Arctic Search Party," which seems to have been meant as a header for the journal as a whole. Somewhat later, around September, are several stanzas from a whalemen's alphabet song, with lines such as "I is the iron on the staysail-boom fit / J is the Jib that neatly did sit / K is the kelson that lies in the hole / L is the lanyards that take a good hold." There are many other versions of this song -- here's a common one -- it may be worth noting that in the place of the traditional "G is for Gangway," the version recorded by Merrill has "G is for grog, that seldom came 'round."

There's an extensive notation of personal supplies, including an accounting of the tobacco used by Captain Barry -- but no enumeration of the stores meant for the Schwatka group. The log ends before the voyage does; it's likely that it was continued in a succeeding volume, which is not presently available. And there's nothing -- alas -- about spoons. As to the honesty of Barry, we have no further indication here, although it's interesting to note that, despite his claim of having sent the mended spoon to Sophia Cracroft, he apparently didn't. In her own personal copy of Gilder's Schwatka's Search, Sophia added a note on the page where this claim was made: "This is not a correct statement. Barry never sent me a spoon." According to her note, once she read of this claim in the Times, she contacted the firm of Morrison and Brown and "after some negotiation" obtained one spoon -- apparently the mended one -- through the help of Professor Nourse (whose name is familiar to us today as the editor of Hall's account of his second voyage). This doesn't seem to speak well in support of Barry's overall honesty, but without any further information, it's hard to say how this misunderstanding came about. I'm continuing to research the history of these spoons -- I have at hand some papers from the Schwatka family that may prove to be of assistance -- if I find anything more, there'll be a part four.

With special thanks to Peter Collins and Michael Lapides of the New Bedford Whaling Museum for their assistance in searching and scanning the logbook of the "Eothen."

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Last Man Searching

Circular Cairn at Erebus Bay (photo courtesy Tom Gross)
I saw the headline a few days after the discovery of HMS "Erebus" -- "Hay River Man Continues Search for Franklin's Grave" -- and at once I thought to myself, this guy must have something to do with Woodman. And so it proved to be: Tom Gross has walked the stones of King William Island with Dave for many years, part of several iterations of the legendary "Project Supunger" -- and even to this day, he's returned each year on his own to continue the search.

Finding Franklin's grave, after all, would be in some ways an even more iconic discovery than that of his ships. We know that he died on 11 June, 1847, at a point when the ships were still afloat, and all the resources that would have, up until his death, been at his command would have been employed in his interment. If the graves at Beechey showed extraordinary care -- custom-made coffins with metal nameplates, and carved headboards reminiscent of an English country churchyard -- surely Franklin's grave would have been even more substantial. And that's the kind of grave that Supunger described to Charles Francis Hall: a vault, about four feet in depth and longer than a man's body, all lined with smooth, closely-fitted stones. A large wooden pole was fixed in the ground nearby, though part of it had been chewed off by a polar bear; the grave itself had been breached by some animal, with the several body parts outside, and the skull and a leg bone inside.

Some -- including the present writer -- have suggested that Irving's grave, already found by Woodman, could be the remnant of this vault, but Gross disagrees. When I reached him by phone a couple of weeks ago, he explained that the Irving grave was, and had always been, a shallow one, made of just a few rough-shaped rocks; it was not even long enough for a body to lay straight. Franklin's tomb, on the other hand, must have been as strong and substantial as possible; Supunger's description of a fortified vault, four feet in depth and as long as as wide as a man, is just what one would expect.

But finding it is another matter. Woodman's earlier Project Supunger searches worked on the assumption that the pile of clothes, stoves and kettles, and other items was the one abandoned near Crozier's Landing. Tom Gross -- having searched there -- now believes this to be mistaken; he points out that there were at least two areas of large piles of abandoned goods, inclduing one on the shores of Erebus Bay. Large cook-stoves would make more sense there -- the ships may well have been just a short distance offshore, and reachable by open water (thus the boats); Gross believes the stoves may have been used to melt ice and heat water, perhaps for drinking purposes, perhaps to enable the men to wash and prepare for their journey.

There are difficulties with this view: Supunger seems to describe the place as much further north, near the tip of the island -- but, as Gross notes, he was only about seventeen at the time, and may have mistaken the long coast of Erebus bay for the northern coastline. Gross also doubts that Supunger had ever seen something like a white man's map.

A few years back Gross heard an interesting account from an Inuk in Gjoa Haven who described how his father told him about finding a "house of stone" a ways inland from Erebus Bay, one that answers in many respects to Supunger's description. This house was made with large, smooth stones, had a stone 'doorway,' and was built into the side of a natural ridge. It's possible that, despite the many searches closer along the coast, that somewhere a ways further inland this stone house still stands.

It's a possibility Tom is willing to stake his time and money on. And so, each summer, he returns to search again. I think we should all wish him luck.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Tale of of a Spoon (Part 2)

Picking up on our story: On his arrival in the Arctic in 1878, Frederick Schwatka  was unable to find any Netsilik who answered to Thomas F. Barry's description of the men who had brought him the Franklin spoon. The only Inuit who knew of this spoon declared that it had been given not to Barry, but to Captain Potter. Schwatka promptly dispatched his second-in-command, William Gilder, on a sledge journey to Repulse Bay to ask Potter himself, who declared that the spoon in question was missing, and that he suspected Barry had stolen it, later fabricating the story about Inuit witnesses. Many -- myself included -- have wondered why, since Barry was present at Repulse Bay when Gilder came to ask Potter about the spoon, they didn't confront him then. Apparently Barry wondered as well; when questioned by his employers on his return he gave the account above, denying categorically that he had stolen his spoon from Captain Potter.

This wasn't what got him into the most trouble, though. As part of his contract, he'd agreed to leave supplies and provisions at Depot Island near Camp Daly for Schwatka's return, but did not do so, an act of neglect which greatly irked Schwatka and his party, who were obliged to beg for supplies from another whaler in the vicinity. Barry tried to explain that, after giving additional supplies to Schwatka before his departure, and feeding two Inuit members of the party left in his care, there was very little bread left, and a much reduced amount of other provisions. He endeavored to reach his goal and leave these behind, but was unable due to adverse ice conditions; nevertheless he swore that he had not misappropriated them, and that the log of the "Eothen" would prove him right. That logbook, unfortunately, was still on the ship, which had returned to Hudson's Bay under another commander.

All this led to his condemnation and dismissal by his employers, and his storming out of the interview with the reporter from the Herald quoted above. His later fate is a mystery; although a man of the exact same name served as a tutor to several members of William Randolph Hearst's family in the 1880's, it's hard to imagine our choleric whaling captain was the same man. As to the logbook of the "Eothen," it's now at the New Bedford Whaling Museum; in an upcoming post, I'll tell whether this record vindicates Barry -- or not.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A tale of a Spoon (Part 1)

Everyone knows something about the expedition led by Frederick Schwatka to find reported documents left behind by Sir John Franklin's men. But few are aware that this expedition was, in fact, launched by a spoon -- or that the Inuit evidence given with this spoon pointed not to King William Island, but to another, much smaller island at the northwest tip of the Melville Peninsula. David Woodman gave these accounts a thorough examination in his second book, Strangers Among Us, but since then no one has followed up on the remarkable trail of clues that could -- just possibly -- lead to the remains of a band of Franklin survivors who almost -- almost -- got out.

The testimony was given to one Thomas F. Barry, at that time a second mate on a whaling ship wintering over near Repulse Bay (in one season) and Marble Island (on another), in 1872 and 1876, serving under Captain Edwin Potter. The Inuit told him of a cairn which was built atop a heavy stone, under which white men -- under the command of a stout man with three stripes on his sleeves -- had buried books and journal like the ones they'd seen him writing in. Barry, on both occasions, cross-examined the Inuit, in a manner that showed he was quite familiar with the pidgin version of Inuktitut commonly used with whalers. And, both times, he placed a chart in front of them and asked where they had seen these things -- and both groups of Inuit pointed to a spot near Cape Crozier on the coast of the Melville Peninsula were they'd seen a cairn, as well as to Cape Englefield and a spot just offshore from it where they said there was an island. They could not understand why this island was not on the white men's charts, but told that the party they had seen had perished there.

Barry's testimony, given to the American Geographical Society, was sent on to the Admirality for evaluation. Both Sir Francis Leopold McClintock and Dr. John Rae cast doubt on the tale, both because they didn't think the pidgin Inuktitut used by Barry was adequate to understand the Inuit accounts fully, and (in Rae's case) because he himself had built a cairn inland from Cape Crozier, and believed this was the one in Barry's story. Indeed, Charles Francis Hall had also visited the spot, though due to deep snow and a lack of tools it isn't clear whether he would have been able to get down to the large rocks the Inuit told of. Rae also declared that Cape Englefield an unlikely place for any Franklin survivors to have journeyed, it being “the last place that any one in distress would think of going to with the object of obtaining assistance and succor.”

But he hadn't thought about the island. Indicated on modern maps as "Crown Prince Frederik Island" (a result of its rediscovery in 1922 by Peter Freuchen) it's actually a good deal more hospitable than its neighboring cape; the U.S. Hydrographic Office describes it as "mostly quite low, composed of sand and small stones," and it could readily have been seen as an ideal site for some kind of camp. But why, after all, would a Franklin party aim for, let alone reach, such a distant destination when all the testimony we have suggests they tried heading south, either to the Fish River or perhaps Repulse Bay?

I can think of one potential answer: since Francis Crozier had spent considerable time among the Inuit at Igloolik while on Parry's second expedition (1821-23), perhaps he would have considered heading in that direction. A camp at Crown Prince Frederik Island might have been meant only as a way-station, before it became a final resting place. This island, so far as I know, has never been searched for any trace of Franklin.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sacred from Every Eye But Mine: Sir John Franklin's Lost Journal

The talk about the possibility of recovering papers and logbooks from the wreck of HMS "Erebus" brings to mind the persistent hope of Franklin searchers over the years that some written documents may yet be found. The ships' log-books would certainly be of enormous value, and might well have been cached on land; more valuable still would be one of the officer's journals. As Ralph Lloyd-Jones recently observed, though, there would not have been any official logbook kept by Franklin himself -- for, altough the commander of the Expedition as a whole, he was not the captain of either vessel. And yet, as it happens, we do know that Sir John Franklin's kept his own personal journal -- in fact, we have a physical description of it from Lady Jane Franklin herself!

Writing on December 15, 1854 to James Anderson, who had been selected to lead a Hudson's Bay party down the Fish River to search the area where it seemed Dr. Rae's evidence pointed, Lady Franklin made two quite singular requests. The first, touchingly, was for a lock of her husband's hair, should his body be found:
I do not expect my dear husband to be amongst the survivors -- if you should meet with his corpse which I think will be found wherever the ships are found, I beg you to bring me his locks of hair ..,
Yet there was also another sort of lock, one which Lady Jane implored Andserson not to open:
I also entreat you to bring me sealed up and directed to myself all the letters you can find addressed to him or me which may be supposed to have been in his possession. I feel that my dear husband's private letters and papers ought to be sacred from every eye but mine must not attribute to me a want of confidence in your honor as a gentleman, a man of conscience and feeling. In your hands these cherished relics will be safe,but I wish you to give strict injunctions to all under you to observe the same precautions ... I shall give £700 reward to whoever brings or forwards this packet ... My husband took with him a bound quarto memorandum book in which he was to write his private journal -- it had brass at the corners and a lock and key -- this also I desire to possess and it will meet with the reward.
The detailed description of this book is striking -- as is Lady Jane's request to Anderson that he return but not read this "private" journal. For understandable as her request was, it was also -- strictly speaking -- a violation of Royal Navy protocol. In Franklin's orders, in paragraph 22, he was given the customary command:
On your arrival in England you are immediately to repair to this office, in order to lay before us a full account of your proceedings ... taking care to demand from the officers, petty officers, and all other persons on board, the logs and journals they may have kept, which are to be sealed up, and you will issue similar directions to Captain Crozier and his officers. The said logs, journals, or other documents to be thereafter disposed of as we may think proper to determine.
Today, of course, these orders are long lapsed, and the British government has given permission for Canada to take possession of any artifacts found in the current search for the lost ships. If left on board one of the vessels, such written materials may yet have a further lease on life; at the low temperatures and low oxygen content of Arctic waters, they are even less susceptible to decay and damage than if they had been left on land. Articles of similar fragility -- playing cards from RMS Titanic, along with a remarkably-preserved bowler hat -- have been retrieved elsewhere. Whatever is found, I shall myself be on the lookout for a bound quarto volume, its corners tipped in brass, locked away with a lock whose service, once so dear to Lady Franklin's hopes, is now no longer needed.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

HMS "Erebus"

It was -- and is -- a storied vessel. Her Majesty's Ship "Erebus," a 372-ton bomb ketch, designed by Sir Henry Peake, constructed at Pembroke dockyard and already a veteran of James Clark Ross's Antarctic voyage before she became Sir John Franklin's flagship for his 1845 expedition in search of the long-sought Northwest Passage, a voyage from which neither he not any of his 128 men would ever return -- and now, she is found, recovered, re-seen, and ready to tell all manner of stories we can hardly yet conceive -- certainly a cause of celebration. So far, Parks Canada has only released a few tantalizing tidbits of what must be a substantial amount of video and still images from the two days of diving on the wreck that they managed before the end of this year's season -- there's some debate over whether they will (or should) release more all at once, or deal it out in dribs and drabs.

Whichever they choose, it's clear that it will take many years of patient work before this vessel gives up all her secrets. And, in the meantime, we should not forget about the many Franklin searchers and researchers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, without whose persistence and passion the renewed search might have never captured public interest, or borne such fruitful results: Dave Woodman, Louie Kamookak, Dorothy Eber, Barry Ranford, Margaret Bertulli, Anne Keenleyside, John Harrington, Andrew Gregg, Ron Rust, Peter Wadhams, Maria Pia Casarini, Owen Beattie and John Geiger, Wayne Davidson, William Battersby, Peter Carney, and many others who have sought for traces of Franklin on land and sea (ice), probed through Inuit testimony, searched Admiralty records, and puzzled over ships' plans. Indeed if -- in the face of cutbacks and layoffs that have severely reduced the Canadian government's ranks of experts in archaeology, conservation, materials science, and other areas, this list of dedicated amateurs might come in handy.

NB: The illustration for this post is a curious one -- J.M.W. Turner's "Hurrah for the Whaler Erebus, Another Fish!," exhibited in 1841-- Turner, apparently had been commissioned to provide illustrations for an account of James Clark Ross's Antarctic voyages, but the commission fell through. Tuner, not wanting either to abandon the work or risk the ire of the publishers, re-worked and re-titled them, turning HMS "Erebus" into a whaling vessel! The engraving after Turner's original is by Robert Brandard.

Monday, September 29, 2014

A Sunken Pompeii

Image © Parks Canada 2014
Upon its arrival in Britain in 1856, the HMS "Resolute" -- a ship that had searched for Sir John Franklin, only to be trapped in the ice itself, and abandoned in the Arctic -- there was a profound feeling of awe and admiration. For, against all odds, the ship had freed herself from her icy death-trap and drifted unpiloted into the Davis Strait, where itshewas boarded and brought back to port by a passing whaler. As a gift to her Majesty, the US Congress ordered the ship restored to her original condition, and this work was done with such care and thoroughness that accounts in the press compared it to a "floating Pompeii":
As regards the arrangement of the furniture and the situation of each particular article in the captain's cabin, they were put into the same state as that in which they were when the crew forsook the ship. In fact, the ship is—so to express it— a floating Pompeii, and everything comes to light just as it was left. Captain Kellet’s epaulets are lying in a tin box on the table. Lieut. Pim’s musical box occupies its old place on the top of a "what not." The "logs" of the various officers are in their respective recesses on the bookshelves. The portmanteau containing the officers’ greatcoats is thrown heedlessly on a chair. On the wall hangs the picture of a ballet girl pirouetting—still for ever pirouetting on the tips of her toes—and, as if in mockery of domestic comfort, a little kettle that should be singing songs "full of family glee," does nothing of the kind, but sits upon a tireless stove as cold as a stone and as silent.
That these objects were still present on board the "Resolute" when she was found would seem to indicate a typical state of affairs when an ice-bound vessel was abandoned in an orderly manner, down to the music-boxes, epaulet-cases, and a picture on the wall. It's particularly interesting to see that the officers' logs or journals were still on the shelves -- we can only hope that the same was the case when the Franklin ship was abandoned.

Indeed, although in some cases these "restored" items had in fact been replaced, the ship was in extraordinary shape when Captain Budington first found it adrift, and went on board:
The ship was found not to have sustained any very material damage. The ropes, indeed, were hard, and inflexible as chains; the rigging was stiff, and crackled at the touch; the tanks in the hold had burst, the iron work was rusted, the paint was discoloured with bilge water, and the topmast and topgallant mast were shattered, but the hull had escaped unscathed, and the ship was not hurt in any vital part. There were three or four feet of water in the hold, but she had not sprung a leak. The cordage was coiled in neat little circles on the deek, after the fashion of English seamen, and the sails were frozen to such stiffness as to resemble sheets of tin. Several thousand pounds of guupowder were found on board, somewhat deteriorated in quality, yet good enough for such purposes as firing salutes. Some of the scientific instruments were injured by exposure and rust; but others were in excellent condition.For a year and four months no human foot had trod the deck of this phantom ship, yet, amid those savage solitudes, where man there was none, and might never be, the pilot's wheel made a stern proclamation, for around it were inscribed in letters of brass the immortal words, "England expects that every man will do his duty."
One can imagine that this indeed was the condition of the Franklin vessel prior to its sinking, and those items not of interest to the Inuit, such as books and written materials, would likely have been left just as they were.

If the "Resolute," then, was a "floating Pompeii," there's reason to hope that the Franklin ship may prove to be a sunken one, revealing much not only about the events after the initial abandonment in 1848, but of everyday life on board.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Was evidence of the Franklin ship found in 1965?

With all the celebration which has quite rightly attended the extraordinary discovery of one of Sir John Franklin's ships by the Victoria Strait expedition, those of us still stuck in our armchairs have, quite naturally, returned to our reading and research with renewed spirits. And it was while digging about in this manner that my fellow Franklin blogger Andrés Paredes Salvador stumbled upon an old, torn clipping at the website of the Derbyshire Record Office, home to a large collection of Franklin materials. The clipping, from April 14th 1965, was headlined "ECHO FROM THE DEEP: Wreck May End Riddle of Arctic Adventure." It seemed, from the remaining bit of the article, that two Canadian naval officers, D.J. Kidd and B.F. Ackerman thought they had found the site of one of Franklin's ships. Was such a thing even distantly possible? Why had no one heard of Kidd or Ackerman? What was the result of their claim?

It took me some time to find any details of their claim, and when I did, it was in an unusual place -- a digitized copy of The War Cry, the official magazine of the Salvation Army. Astonishingly, these men had done their own research, and had -- as have Woodman and other modern searchers -- identified the area near O'Reilly Island as the likely site of one wreck. They then persuaded Dr. E.F. Roots of the Polar Shelf staff in Cambridge Bay that it was worth trying a magnetometer search, looking, as would Woodman nearly 30 years later, for the magnetic signature of the ship's ex-railway engine. They identified a target, described as "250 feet off the east shore of the south end of a small unnamed island which lies one mile north of the northern tip of O'Reilly Island," and seemed to have a high level of confidence that this was the ship they sought.

I know from talking with Dave Woodman over the years how tough it is to use a magnetometer survey in this way -- he in his own searches identified numerous targets, discovering, when he examined them with side-scan sonar, that they were, alas, just natural features. He mentions the 1965 search in his Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Evidence, on page 267.

Still, with the claimed site so close to this year's find, one wonders: could these two forgotten men have actually found the site of the ship or some part of it 49 years ago? They also reported finding a spike marked with the "broad arrow" near the site -- which apparently led to the "nameless" island being named "Nail Island" -- along with wood chips and shavings, which could suggest that these were from Inuit re-purposing of wood from the ships. Dr. Roots himself came to believe that their finding was just a natural feature, and the initial excitement soon died down.

UPDATE: I wrote to Dave Woodman, and he told me that, indeed, he'd followed up on this report during his own magnetometer survey:
They in actual fact were following up an earlier area magnetometer survey by Canadian geologists that had identified a large discrete anomaly in the area (without any knowledge of Franklin history). The large anomaly, I believe, was one of those we relocated in our 2002 magnetometer survey and labelled by Brad Nelson (our expert) as "enormous." It was, in his opinion, about 1000 times too powerful to have been caused by a Franklin ship (hence discoverable using 1960s technology).The water depth was, if I remember, much too shallow to allow for the wreck (the hull would have been visible - so not in accord with the Inuit testimony) and was very close to O'Reilly Island (so not germane to where the wreck was actually found - further north).

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Photographs from the Bottom of the Sea

One of the most fascinating aspects of the discovery of one of Sir John Franklin's ships is the possibility that they may contain photographic images made by the ship's officers during their ill-fated Arctic sojourn. And yet, although we know that the Franklin expedition had brought along a camera apparatus, one might well ask whether there's any likelihood that the images made with it would, even if recovered, be intact after more than one hundred and sixty years under water.

The good news is that there's precedent for this. The image above, from a 2014 article by Steve Roach in Coin World, shows two Ambrotypes from the wreck of the SS "Central America," a side-wheel steamer that sank in 1857 off the Carolina coast. Although mostly known for its treasures of gold and silver, the wreck has also yielded many touching reminders of the human loss that attending its sinking, these images most poignant among them. Various articles on the wreck mention the recovery of both Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes, although I've been unable to locate any images of the former. By 1857, the Daguerreotype would have been "old" technology, and probably far less common -- finding one in an 1857 wreck would be like finding an original iPhone in a car crash today -- unlikely, but certainly not impossible.

The survival status of such an image would also be very dependent on the technology. Ambrotypes are glass plates, with the image on the interior side of the glass, backed with black paper (the image is negative but appears positive -- in the UK they're sometimes referred to a "collodion positives." Since the collodion emulsion is inside the keep-case, such an image would be somewhat protected from water damage, and that's what we see in the image above; even though the decorative paper of the case has eroded away, the images seem intact.

For a Daguerreotype, though, the odds of survival might well be steeper. They consist of a sensitized copper plate which has been coated with silver and polished to a mirror-like sheen; the silver is sensitized and developed with vapors, and resides on an extraordinarily thin layer atop the silver. If you see an original, it still looks like a mirror when viewed straight-on; the image only appears at an angle. As surviving examples show, it's a fragile format; thoughtless attempts to "clean" a Daguerreotype with a cloth have led to irreparable damage.

In commercial use, Daguerreotypes were placed in a  keep-case with a securely fastened glass plate as a cover -- but would Franklin's men have followed this procedure? The officer most closely associated with the apparatus was Goodsir, who as Assistant Surgeon and naturalist might also have found mollusks more interesting than men -- I'm not sure that dramatic finds such as those in Andrée's camera are likely. Still, one can always dream ...

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Recovering papers from the Franklin wreck

The book at left isn't in especially good shape. It's a maths book, a bit out of date (apparently having been printed in 1909); the binding has separated and there's some deformation of the pages, wrinkling, and quite a few stains. This damage, though, isn't the fault of a careless owner, but the result of the fact that this book spent nearly eighty years at the bottom of the ocean in RMS "Titanic."

Indeed, numerous paper relics were recovered by the Titanic, including playing cards, menus, notebooks, and business cards. The cold, dark depths of the sea, though hostile to human life, can be reasonably friendly to paper. Old paper is best, because of its high rag content, but any sort of paper might have a better chance at the bottom of the sea than it would in a hot attic closet or a dank basement in any modern city. One of the reasons is not simply the cold and dark, but the low oxygen content of the water; the Arctic waters near where the Franklin vessel has been found are lower in oxygen, and support less sea-life, than in temperate zones.

Care needs to be taken with such items, of course. Leaves of books or documents need to be carefully conserved, and the process is slow and painstaking. But there's no reason not to expect some legible documents could be recovered. Illustrations of Franklin's cabin aboard "Erebus" show a bank of compartments where various navigational charts would be stored, as well as a sort of built-in bureau with a cabinet and nine drawers. Captain Crozier's cabin would have been nearly identical in this arrangement. The damage at the stern of the discovered ship is concerning, but it may well be that, if the fore area of the captain's quarters is intact, at least some of these papers may in place, and accessible to divers.

Of course, the most vitally interesting material would be written documents -- the ship's logbook, or any accounts written by the officers and men of their experiences. We know that McClure, on abandoning HMS "Investigator," ordered his men to leave personal journals behind; a similar command may have been issued here. Whatever was left, it's going to have immense human interest, even if -- like the famous folded page of the "Student's Manual" -- it consists only of a fortuitous crease in the paper.

And then there's the ships' libraries. Estimates as to the number of books range from the hundreds into the thousands, and at one point Fitzames and other officers compiled a catalog of the books on board "Erebus." Working from existing records -- actual books recovered from the Arctic, books mentioned by officers and family members as having been brought aboard, the claim that all the previous important explorers' narratives were included, and lists of certain standard sets such as the "Seaman's Library," it's possible to guess at what this library contained. And so we might find Nicholas Nickleby, or perhaps An Old Chaplain's Farewell to Seamen, or some odd early volumes of Punch. And there may be some unexpected books, too: Samuel Green's Life of Muhammed, The Ingoldsby Legends, and Josiah Woodward's A Kind Caution to Profane Swearers (one thinks of Franklin's aversion to swearing). I've created a modest list here at LibraryThing's Legacy Library Project, which includes a number of better-documented shipboard libraries (including that of HMS "Beagle"), and even a list of all the books aboard the International Space Station. Have a look! And perhaps, soon, we'll be able to compare my list to some actual books recovered from one of Franklin's ships.

Inuit Testimony and the Franklin Ship

It's good to see that there's been plenty of news coverage which has acknowledged that the Franklin ship discovered a few days ago was found in a place (off Hat Island) and in circumstances (in shallow water, such that the tops of its masts could be seen, at least until the ice broke them off the next season) that exactly match Inuit oral traditions. Few, however, have quoted much from the historical record of Inuit testimony. I believe that these records still have something to tell us, and one aspect of that testimony could soon be tested again: which ship is this?

According to the Inuit, the ship aboard which they had often seen "Too-loo-ark" (Franklin) was "overwhelmed with heavy ice in the spring of the year. The men all worked for their lives in getting out provisions, but before they could save much the ice turned the vessel down on its side, crushing the masts and breaking a hole in her bottom, She sank at once, and has never been seen again. The other ship, spoken of as seen near Ook-goo-lik, was in complete order. For a long time the Inuits feared to go on board. On the report of one of them that he had seen one man on the vessel that was alive, many of the Inuit visited it, but saw nothing of the man."

It's clear from this testimony that it was HMS "Erebus," Franklin's ship of command, that sank first -- which would mean that the ship discovered by Ryan Harris and his Parks Canada team would be HMS "Terror." If they can get divers, or a ROV, in position at the stern of the ship (part of which appears to have broken away) they may be able to get images of the ship's engine. And we know quite a bit about the engine that was installed on the "Terror" -- thanks to research by blogger Peter Carney, it now seems most likely that it was a "Archimedes"  2-2-2 engine built by G & J Rennie, although some records suggest it could have been an 0-4-0 Stephenson goods engine.  Either engine has enough distinct features that, even missing their original wheels and carriage, they ought to be fairly easily identified if clear images can be obtained.

And there are a number of other details that might be verifiable with good imagery:
Puhtoorak told how the Esquimaux, not understanding how to get into the ship, cut through one side. When summer came and the ice melted the ship righted herself but the hole in her side being below the water line she sank as the water poured in. After the ship sank, they found a small boat on the mainland. When he went on board the ship he saw a pile of dirt on one side of the cabin door showing that some white man had recently swept out the cabin. He found on board the ship four red tin cans filled with meat and many that had been opened. The meat was full of fat. The natives went all through the ship and found also many empty casks. The found iron chains and anchors on deck, and spoons, knives, forks, tin plates, china plates, etc. When the ship finally sank her masts stuck out of the water and many things floated on shore which the natives picked up. He also saw books on board the ship but the natives did not take them. He afterwards saw some that had washed ashore. He never saw any stone monument or cairn on the mainland near where the ship sank. There was one small boat hanging from the davits which the natives cut down. Some of the ship's sails were set.
We're seeing some of these iron chains today. Will we see a hole in its side below the water-line, one deliberately cut? Only time well tell.  But it's very hopeful that the ship was said to be "in perfect order"; this suggests that those who abandoned it took care to set things in order before they left, even sweeping out the cabins. Let's hope that they made sure to leave behind a secured copy of the ship's log and other papers indicating the events before its abandonment. And books? How I would love to browse that library. If these kinds of paper materials can be recovered, the Franklin story will have a completely unexpected new chapter.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Found: Vessel #1 of Franklin's two ships

So word now is that a vessel has been found. Let's call this "vessel #1" -- it's certainly either the "Erebus" or "Terror" -- and apparently, as I'd always suspected, it's the more southerly of the two vessels, the one that was piloted or drifted well south of Victoria Strait, that's been discovered. This is the ship that was anchored not far offshore from an island and sank after being frozen in for a season in shallow water such that the tops of the masts could be seen.  The exact location, sensibly enough, is not being disclosed, but seems to lie to the southwest of King William Island, off the western or northwestern extreme of the Adelaide Peninsula, in what Parks Canada refers to as their "southern search area."

This must be the very ship that was talked about in Inuit tales for many years, the one they visited and explored after it had been abandoned, the one in which they found the body of a very tall man in one of the cabins. The current years' searchers can thank the ice that prevented them from searching for the more northerly wreck which, though it may be found, I believe will be in a very fragmentary condition, if anything survives of it at all.

Judging from the images, I'd say that it's intact enough that I would expect to find the boiler in situ, which will enable definite identification of the vessel. And we should also, I think, expect that a considerable amount of material representing life aboard the ship may be recovered, if the items found in the preliminary search of HMS "Investigator" are any clue. This could, potentially, include objects of metal, wood, leather, or even paper (the last of which would be a sort of "Holy Grail" to be sure).

I'm going to go back for the moment to checking the news reports, and e-mailing various people who've sought this vessel or are part of this year's team. They certainly all deserve our hearty congratulations! But let's also remember that this vindicates Inuit oral tradition, which had described a ship in just such a situation, and mentioned items from a ship found near Hat Island. It's a big day.

The Inuit Knew It

With apologies to the late Alootook Ipellie (The Inuit Thought of It), it's worth noting that the fragments of a vessel found on Hat Island by Doug Stenton's archaeological team were already known about by the Inuit. As oral historian Dorothy Eber relates it:
In the Arctic Islands Lodge, I hear again the stories Frank Analok, Moses Koihok, and Mabel Angulalik pass 'from generations before us' of the exploring ship at Imnguyaaluk in the Royal Geographical Society Islands and the ship the Inuit say sank, perhaps with the help of shamans. As a child, Mabel heard that her own relatives came upon what they thought were pieces of a ship's wreckage buried in sand, she believes, to the east of Hat Island.
The full story is in Eber's Encounters on the Passage: The Inuit Meet the Explorers, on page 132. Mabel may, for all I know, still be living in Cambridge Bay. Someone should give her a call and let her know her family tradition was right.

New Franklin find

The news is all over this morning of the two new Franklin expedition finds made on Hat Island by a GN-directed team of archaeologists: a davit (pictured at left) and a "wooden object, possibly a plug for a deck hawse." The davit is of special interest as it's marked, twice with the broad arrow and also with the number 12. It's been hailed as the first find of Franklin artifacts "in modern times," a claim which is only accurate if you add "from the ships." Nearly all of what has been recovered, either in the original Franklin search era or since, has been from material found on land, and associated with the crews, rather than actual parts of either expedition vessel.

Indeed, as William Battersby points out aptly in his blog post, this would seem to mark only the fourth find ever of any part of the ships, the others being 1) A part of a flag staff and oak stanchion found on Victoria Island in 1851 by Dr. John Rae; 2) Two pieces of the frame of a ship's hatchway, found by a party dispatched from HMS Enterprise in 1853; and 3) A piece of pine, possibly deck planking, recovered from King William Island in 1954 by Paul Cooper. Battersby has proposed a sort of triangle, its points defined by these finds, within which he suggests that one of the vessels might be found.

I'm not quite so sanguine, though I remain hopeful. It might be observed that all of the items from the ships so far recovered over more than a century come either from the deck area or above, and show no signs of having been re-purposed by Inuit, or in any way deliberately removed. This suggests strongly to me that they are the result of a ship having been crushed in the ice, and that the items may well have drifted a considerable distance in the pack from where this event originally occurred. That some made it so far as the eastern coast of Victoria Island suggests the violence and utter decimation of the ship, with bits and pieces carried in various directions as the pack broke up in the vicinity of Queen Maud Gulf. They may, indeed, more probably be from the first ship to founder, rather than the second vessel which according to Inuit testimony seems to have been piloted further south, and sunk in shallow water near an island.

But it's also possible that the island in that case was Hat Island. To account for that possibility, the search should be intensified in the area around it; I hope that ice conditions and other circumstances will permit some assets to be deployed there before the window has closed on this year's search.

p.s. -- if you've come to this posting via an outside link, don't miss this update.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Another record of McClintock's findings

It's known that, in addition to the Victory Point record with its sombre postscript, there was at least one other copy of a note with the same original message. Much to everyone's surprise, there recently surfaced another full copy of the Victory Point record, along with notes of the objects found at Crozier's Landing, the "Boat Place," and the body next to which the "Peglar" papers were found. It was sold at auction in July, and certainly presents a unique historical perspective on Hobson's, and McClintock's discoveries.

It was made by Richard Shingleton, the officers' steward aboard the "Fox," who was thus present at the moment the original record was brought back to the ship. Mr. Shingleton took, perhaps, a more inquisitive and active interest in the business of the expedition than most men in his situation; among the artifacts he brought back was a Snow Bunting nest with three eggs, now in the collection of Norfolk Museums. He will also be known to those who have read Bill Barr's Arctic Hell-Ship, for he was the gunroom steward aboard HMS Enterprise as well, and his private journal was one of Barr's sources for his reconstruction of Collinson's chaotic command. It would seem from this image that Shingleton's penmanship was quite good, and his copy accurate; there are no substantive variations, although he does write "Back's Great Fish River" where the VP record has simply "Back's fish river."

The second leaf of the document lists the artifacts found "at the spot where they landed," at the later "Boat place," and a brief account of the "Peglar" body: "Found in Simpson's Straits, the skeleton of a man and near him a pocketbook, brush & comb, and half a sovereign."

The copy may have been made for personal purposes -- or perhaps simply to help ensure that, should the original be lost, there was another chance for the information to survive.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

2014 Franklin search

Everyone has heard the news -- this time, there was no need to use Vessel Finder maps to seek out the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, or to sift through online rumors: the government announced it in advance. Perhaps significantly, this time the press release came from an Inuk, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, whose surname recalls the name given by the Inuit to Francis Crozier, Franklin's second-in-command, usually transcribed in 19th-century documents as "Aglooka."

Still, despite this auspicious association, one wonders: what will be different about the 2014 search for Franklin? I was pleased (and somewhat bemused) to see that it seems as though this year the plan has incorporated a number of things that I've repeatedly argued for in this blog: 1) A larger number of support vessels; 2) Significant public-private partnerships; and 3) Use of relevant satellite and other remote imaging technology. In fact, I think it would be accurate to say that this is largest and most ambitious single-season search for Franklin's vessels since the early 1850's. According to the press release, not only will it involve the Laurier, along with the venerable scow Martin Bergmann, but the warship HMCS Kingston, a 55-meter long vessel with side-scan sonar capabilities, along with the "One Ocean Voyager," a.k.a. the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a still larger ship originally outfitted as a research vessel, but more recently chartered by One Ocean Expeditions as a passenger ship taking a mix of researchers and "extreme tourists" to the polar regions. It's not every ice-strengthened vessel that can boast a formal dining room, a fitness center, a bar, a library, and a lounge, all conveniently accessible by elevator! It's not clear, though, whether the Vavilov will be actively participating (launching, as it is capable of doing, Zodiacs or submersibles) or serving more as a floating platform for those who wish to share in the adventure. The Parks Canada launches (Kinglett and Gannet) will be there as well, along with their research vessel Investigator -- all in all, more personnel, more tonnage, and more equipment than has ever before been dedicated to the search.

We're also fortunate that, this year, we've been told something about the search area, as the very name  indicates: the Victoria Strait. This is, when not filled with old ice, a quite large body of water (see map above) and so the specificity conferred by the name is limited. Earlier searches seem to have taken place near the Royal Geographical Society Islands (visible at the lower right of this map), so in a sense this is an extended search of an area already identified in past seasons. But is it the right place to look?

Not to go into too many tedious details, we have some good information about Franklin's ships, both from the Victory Point Record and Inuit testimony. We don't know which is which, but either the Erebus or the Terror was apparently crushed in the ice within visual distance of the coast of King William Island. The second vessel, either drifting or re-piloted, succeeded in getting further south, where it sank, according to the Inuit, near an island where the water was shallow enough that its masts were still visible; this is the wreck sought years ago by David C. Woodman and others in the Vicinity of "Utjulik" -- with several islands, such as O'Reilly Island, off the western shores of the Adelaide peninsula among their key targets.  So it's safe to say that, if they're looking in the Victoria Strait, it would be this first vessel that Parks Canada would be seeking. Although crushed by the ice, it may -- as was the HMS Breadalbane -- still be reasonably well-preserved, particularly if it sank in deeper water untouched by passing ice, which annually scours on the sea-floor in shallower areas. If not so lucky, it may have been reduced long ago to more of a débris field than a ship. Despite this, the ship's engine -- Erebus and Terror used two re-purposed railway engines -- would likely be intact, and would serve to identify the vessel immediately (the two engines were of different designs).

Is it a perfect search? None could be. I always wish that some land-based archaeological work will be done, but the odds of that seem low this time -- and no one who's really tried to puzzle out all the surviving evidence -- Inuit testimony, physical relics, ice cores climate histories, and the reports of nineteenth-century searchers should be sanguine about any plan. Still, I hold out some hope that this year, if ice conditions and weather allow, a good deal more progress will be made -- even if it turns out to be simply establishing where Franklin's ships are not. And, whatever the political hoopla, I still put some confidence in the extraordinarily persistent, careful, and well-trained teams at Parks Canada; everyone who cares about Franklin, whatever their politics, should wish them well.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Essential Franklin Bookshelf (repost)

Recent Facebook discussions, along with a goodly percentage of my daily e-mail, center around which books about Sir John Franklin's 1845 expedition are the ones that an interested reader should begin with, and which are essential to further study. There are hundreds of possible candidates, and although little new has been learned about Franklin's fate over the past decade or so, that hasn't stopped new books from coming. And so I hope it will be useful for me to name the best of these books, in an informal manner -- I have no prizes or medals to hand out! -- in the hopes that those who are bitten, as I have been, by the Franklin "bug" will find what they need to steer themselves in the right direction.  And, having thought long and hard about the question, it seems to me that there are eight books -- just eight -- that I would wholeheartedly recommend.  Not all are easy to find, but every single one is worth the price of admission.  I give them here in the order in which I hope they might ideally be read, though knowing that the accidents of discovery may or may not correspond with such an ideal sequence.

First and foremost, anyone who cares at all about Franklin should get hold of the Arctic Press's facsimile edition of Richard Cyriax's study.  Was Cyriax an apologist for the Royal Navy? Are some of his conclusions mere 'conventional wisdom' that ought to be questioned?  Yes, surely, but his careful and meticulous study is filled with essential information, without which no meaningful speculation, and no sensible opposition to conventional wisdoms, can be made.

Secondly, I would recommend Roderic Owen's The Fate of Franklin.  Owen was a Franklin collateral descendant, and spent time with all kinds of sources which would be difficult, even in this Internet age, to pull together. The depth and breadth of his study make it worthwhile, despite a few minor errors and an annoying habit of not giving complete sources.

Third, I believe that David C. Woodman's Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony remains by far the most significant assessment of the Inuit accounts, which provide the best hope we will ever have of learning where to look, and what to look for.  Some of Woodman's ideas have evolved, and his second book Strangers Among Us would also be a worthy purchase, but without Unravelling there is little one could hope to do to truly understand the scope of Franklin searches, then or now.

Fourth, Dorothy Eber's Encounters on the Passage: The Inuit Meet the Explorers, is a very important supplement to Woodman's work.  It is remarkable to see how long the oral tradition endured, and Eber is an expert guide to a broader understanding of how such traditions work.

Fifth, I can't help but recommend Ken McGoogan's Fatal Passage.  McGoogan has an axe to grind, and whether or not one agrees with his arguments about the nature of Rae's achievements, there is not better tonic for a person suffering from what I like to call "Franklinitis" than to have one's views cast suddenly and energetically into the kind of sharp argumentative relief provided by this landmark book.

Sixth, of course, would be Beattie and Geiger's Frozen in Time or its reprints.  Despite the limits of what their studies disclose -- after all, the three graves on Beechey are too early to tell us much about the last days of Franklin's men -- but theirs is, without question, the most dramatic and vivid investigation into the Franklin expedition ever made.  No one who has looked into the eyes of John Torrington will ever forget the experience.

Seventh, my late friend Chauncey Loomis's Weird and Tragic Shores gives us the most memorable portrait we are ever likely to have of the method and the madness of the greatest of Franklin searchers, Charles Francis Hall of Ohio.

Eighth, and last, I cannot recommend John Wilson's biography of Sir John Franklin too highly.  It was written as a YA (Young Adult) book, but it is by far more eloquent, more captivating, and more succinct than any of the several recent "adult" Franklin biographies to be issued.  It's an excellent final course in a Franklin meal, and one which aptly pulls together the whole picture of the man.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

An Arctic Affair

With the release on BluRay and DVD of Ralph Fiennes' film The Invisible Woman, based on the affair between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan, my thoughts drift back to the amateur theatricals, staged by Dickens and his protégé Wilkie Collins, which led -- unintentionally -- to their meeting. The first, Collins's "The Lighthouse," was a modest success before private audiences, but it was to be the next Collins/Dickens project, "The Frozen Deep," a melodrama about ill-starred Arctic explorers loosely based on the Franklin expedition, that brought Ternan -- hired when the play moved on to  public benefit performances in Manchester -- and Dickens together. How I would love to see the backdrop that Stanfield painted for that play -- but it, alas has gone missing. You can, however, see a view of the original private production, which was engraved in the Illustrated London News.

Dickens, as I've written about at length in my book Arctic Spectacles, was fascinated with Arctic exploration, following every detail of the search for Sir John Franklin and his men, and endearing himself to his wife Lady Jane Franklin by defending her husband's reputation in the press. He was obsessed with some of the darker themes of Arctic endeavors -- isolation, madness, and even cannibalism (see Harry Stone's magisterial The Night Side of Dickens for more on those). He took an active hand in Collins's plans for "The Frozen Deep," revising many parts of the script and managing all the stage scenery (which was made not only by Stanfield, but also by William Telbin, famous for his panorama of the "Overland Mail to India"). And, perhaps more importantly, he cast himself in the central role of Wardour, a Heathcliffian figure (another reason Fiennes should be perfect for this role) who agonizingly finds himself paired on an Arctic voyage with his more polished, gentlemanly rival for the great love of his life.

The play was a tremendous hit; Queen Victoria asked for (and received) a command performance for her and her family, and the benefit performances in Manchester reduced not only the audiences, but the cast members and stage-hands, to tears. And yet, despite many attempts at revival, "The Frozen Deep"never regained its original fame, although Collins made a narrative version a central part of his lecture tours in later years.  Dickens, feeling his amateur actresses might not be able to project effectively at the Free Trade Hall where the Manchester performances were staged, hired professional actresses -- among them Ellen Ternan, with whom he fell deeply in love. He left his wife Catherine, and spent the last thirteen years of his life with Ternan, taking care to hide their relationship from the public (see Claire Tomalin's The Invisible Woman, on which the film is based).

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

"Before Nanook" at the Velaslavasay Panorama

This coming Saturday, May 10th, I'll be joining my old Arctic friend and fellow-researcher Kenn Harper to give a talk on films of Arctic subjects made before 1922, the year that Nanook of the North, for better or worse, re-wrote people's ideas of why the "Frozen North" looked like. We'll be giving our talk at the fabulous Velaslavasay Panorama, home to the first and only genuine Arctic panorama of the twenty-first century, "Effulgence of the North," here in Los Angeles, California.

One might think that there weren't any significant Arctic films in the early silent era -- but then, one would be wrong. In my own research, I've documented over 100 of them, an astonishing figure even when one considers that, in the earliest days of the silents, 50 feet was the standard length of a film. By 1910, a typical feature took up an entire reel of film, about 1,000 feet or so (12-15 minutes, depending on the speed of the projection), and it was in this period that some of the most unusual Arctic features were made. Many people, for instance, hold the mistaken belief that Zach Kunuk's Atanarjuat (2001) was the Inuit-cast, Inuit-written film -- but in fact that honor belongs to "The Way of the Eskimo," produced by the Selig Polyscope Company 90 years earlier, starring and written by Nancy Columbia, whom Kenn has aptly dubbed "The Most Famous Inuk in the World" of her time.

Our presentation at the Velaslavasay will include stills and production shots from this film, as well as actual footage from several other films in which Nancy Columbia appeared -- ironically, though "The Way of the Eskimo" is not known to survive, most of her other roles were as "Indians," not Inuit. She and her family appeared in at least nineteen films between 1901 and 1920, and our talk will cover what we know about most of them, along with a look at the dramatic genre, the "Northern" -- which, had things gone a little differently, might have outlasted the "Western" in popularity.

The event on the 10th is at 8:00 p.m. -- tickets are $13, and can be ordered online at the Brown Paper Tickets website. If you're in the LA area, I hope to see you there!